Speaking from Among the Bones by Alan Bradley
13 June, 2013
I’ve mentioned before my passion for poisons and my special fondness for cyanide. But, to be perfectly fair, I must admit that I also have something of a soft spot for strychnine, not just for what it is, but for what it’s capable of becoming. Brought into the presence of nascent oxygen, for instance, these rather ordinary white crystals become at first rich blue in colour, then pass in succession through purple, violet, crimson, orange and yellow.
A perfect rainbow of ruin!
‘Cyanide…strychnine…arsenic’ I spoke their names aloud. These were what I called my ‘calming chemicals.’
Aah Flavia de Luce. I’m not sure whether there are very many protagonists who have managed to grasp so many hearts in their competent little hands. With her introduction in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Alan Bradley has created a veritable tour de force of ingenuity coupled with such lovableness that sometimes I wish I was Flavia with her crazy family, crumbling country pile and an abandoned Victorian chemistry lab to die for.
In Speaking from Among the Bones, Flavia is almost twelve and, together with the rest of the village, is eagerly awaiting the unearthing of St. Tancred who is said to be buried in the parish church of Bishop’s Lacey. But when the body of the church organist is found dead inside the organ and weird goings-on are uncovered in the tunnels beneath the church, Flavia sniffs a rat. Or a bat. Using only her wits and her prodigious knowledge of poisons, Flavia vows to uncover the mystery behind the suspicious death and search for the legendary diamond, the Heart of Lucifer, which may spell the end to her family’s financial troubles. For Buckshaw, her beloved home, has been put on the market and they may have to let it go. There is also the matter of the enigmatic Magistrate Ridley-Smith and his strange son who live in the next village and who Flavia’s deceased mother, Harriet, once knew. What’s with all the secrecy and why won’t anyone talk about them?
Flavia is back on form in her fifth adventure, navigating her way through tricky familial politics with her sisters Feely and Daffy, her still-grieving father’s financial woes, making new friends with a flora-archaeologist and renewing her acquaintance with the solemn Inspector Hewitt and his beautiful wife Antigone. And there’s also her touching friendship with Dogger, the family handyman who had fought alongside her father in the Great War and who still suffers occasionally from his ‘episodes’.
The mystery is engaging with its heady mix of village gossip and historical nuggets bound together with useful scientific knowledge that is totally unsuitable for a child. On the book, Taylor on Poisons, Flavia says
I did not mention that I kept this gripping reference on my bedside table as a midnight comforter.
I love the gap between Flavia’s emotional naiveté and her piercing intellect, the way she is so wrapped up in unraveling her mysteries that she often misses what is going on in the lives of the people around her. And the touching way she craves recognition as only a child does.
I keep saying this each time I read one of Bradley’s mysteries but I do urge you to give them a try. They’ve often taken me out of a reading slump, comforted me when things are blue and have made me laugh on the dreaded commute. Bradley’s comic touches are spot on, rounding the harsh lessons of evil, tragedy and murder. And do start with the first in the series just so you get a feel for the community in Bishop’s Lacey as the books do follow a loose chronological order.